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A breath-taking new study, with some of the most well-regarded names in population genetics,
archaeology and anthropology as authors, unpeels the layers of our pre-history concerning the Indus
Valley, Vedic Aryans and Dravidian languages.



Migrations from the south-eastern Steppe in central Asia “almost certainly” brought Indo-European
languages to South Asia in the second millennium (2000 to 1000 BCE). There was also significant
movement of Iranian agriculturists to South Asia a few thousand years earlier that may have
catalysed the spread of west Asian crops to the subcontinent.


Indian population groups today descend from at least three ancestral groups: descendants of the
original Out of Africa migrants who were hunter-gatherers; Iranian agriculturists who spread to
South Asia later; and pastoralists from south-eastern Steppe in central Asia who came even later.


The study had no ancient DNA from Indus Valley Civilization directly, but ancient DNA from the Indus
periphery has shown a distinctive ancestry type, with 58 to 86 per cent Iranian agriculturist ancestry
and 14 to 42 per cent south Asian hunter-gatherer ancestry which is likely to be reflective of the
Indus Valley Civilization population itself.


The pastoralists who migrated from the south-eastern Steppe towards South Asia in the second
millennium BCE (2000 to 1000 BCE) mixed with the people in the Indus Valley, thus creating one of
the two main source populations of South Asia today, the Ancestral North Indians or ANI.


The other main source population of South Asia, the Ancestral South Indians or ASI, arose in the last
four thousand years as a mix of Iranian agriculturist ancestry and ancient South Asian hunter-
gatherer ancestry. Much of the formation of ASI (as well as ANI), occurred in the second millennium
BCE, after the decline of the Indus Valley civilization.


The mixing between the Iranian agriculturists and the ancient hunter-gatherers of the South
occurred either as a result of agriculture and pastoralism spreading from the Indus Valley towards
the southern peninsula around 3000 BC, or because of the spread of culture from the Indus Valley
Civilisation after it declined and the new Steppe migrants moved in to mix with the people of the
Indus region.


Most current Indian population groups can be modelled as a mixture of ANI and ASI, but this model
is a poor fit for 10 groups, each of whom has a significantly higher ratio of Steppe-related ancestry
than others. The strongest signal of such elevated ratios came from groups of priestly status who are
among the traditional custodians of texts written in early Sanskrit. This provides a new line of
evidence – beyond the large-scale Middle Bronze Age spread of pastoralists from the Steppe – for a
linkage between Steppe ancestry and Indo-European culture.

CAVEAT: The study didn’t focus on Austroasiatic speakers or the Sino-Tibetan language speakers and
a fuller picture of the composition of India’s present-day population will need to include them as


Before you begin to read this, take a chair and sit down comfortably. Because this is going to take
some time, and it is going to address some of the most fundamental questions about how we, the
Indians, or South Asians more generally, came to be.

The answers you are going to read are taken from an extensive new study that has just been
released, titled the Genomic Formation of Central and South Asia. It is co-authored by 92 scientists
from around the world and was co-directed by Prof. David Reich of the Harvard Medical School.
Reich runs a lab at Harvard that has no equal in its ability to sequence and analyse ancient DNA at
scale and speed and he has co-authored multiple studies in recent years that have changed the way
we understand the prehistory of much of the world. His just-released book, Who We Are and How
We Got Here, is currently making waves.

Among those 92 co-authors are scientists who are stars of an equal measure in their own disciplines,
like James Mallory, archaeologist and author of the classic “In search of Indo-Europeans: Language,
Archaeology and Myth”; and David Anthony, anthropologist and author of the ground-breaking “The
Horse, The Wheel and the Language: How Bronze Age Raiders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the
Modern World”. Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller and archaeologist Nicole Boivin are familiar names in
India for the work they have done in the country. Vasant Shinde is the vice-chancellor of Deccan
College, India’s premier institution for archaeology. K. Thangaraj, head of the Centre for Cellular and
Molecular Biology is a co-director of the study while Niraj Rai of the Birla Sahni Institute of
Paleosciences is a co-author, along with Priya Moorjani of the University of California, Vagheesh
Narasimhan and Swapan Mallik of the Harvard Medical School and Ayushi Nayak of the Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany.

This list of names is noteworthy not just because of the weight they carry, but also because of the
variety of fields they come from. Thought was obviously given to the often-raised criticism that
population geneticists do not sufficiently take into account archaeological and historical contexts in
their studies.

As important as the names are the data that the study is based on: ancient DNA from 612
individuals, 362 of them reported for the first time. These ancient individuals come from many
regions and periods: Iran and “Turan” which includes Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (5600
to 1200 BCE); western Siberian forest zone (6200 to 4000 BCE); the Steppe east of the Ural
mountains, including Kazakhstan (4700 to 1000 BCE) and the Swat Valley of Pakistan (1,200 BCE – 1
CE). This data was then compared and co-analyzed with genome-wide data from present-day
individuals – 1789 of them from 246 ethnographically distinct groups in South Asia. It is this
comparative analysis using both ancient DNA and present-day DNA across regions and periods that
allows the study to arrive at clear conclusions about who moved from where and mixed with whom.

So what does the study say?

One doesn’t know if it was designed that way, but the study addresses the three fundamental
questions that have bedevilled Indian archaeologists, anthropologists and historians for decades.
These are also the questions that hold the key to understanding how the Indian population is put
together, what its basic components are, and how migrations at different points of time may have
shaped it.

Question one: Were the beginnings of agriculture in north-western India helped along by the spread
of agriculturists from western Asia or did western Asian crops such as barley and wheat spread to
south Asia without the accompaniment of migration? Question two: Who built and populated the
Indus Valley civilisation? Were they migrants from western Asia? Or were they indigenous hunter-
gatherers who had transitioned to agriculture and then urban settlements? Or were they Vedic
Aryans? Question Three: Was there a significant migration of pastoralists from the central Asian
Steppe to south Asia who brought with them Indo-European language and culture and who called
themselves Aryans? If there was, when did that happen?


The study’s response to each question is reasoned and clear in a manner that none of those
questions have ever been answered. Let’s start with the last question first, about the ‘Aryan’
migration. According to the study, there was indeed southward migration of pastoralists from the
south-eastern Steppe - first towards southern central Asian regions of today’s Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan between 2300 and 1500 BCE and then towards South Asia throughout the
second millennium BCE (2000 to 1000 BCE). On their route, they impacted the Bactria-Margiana
Architectural Complex (BMAC) that thrived between 2,300 and 1,700, but mostly bypassed it to
move further down towards South Asia. There they mixed with the existing people of the Indus
Valley, thus creating one of the two main sources of population in India today: Ancestral North
Indians or ANI, the other being Ancestral South Indians, or ASI.

The study arrived at these conclusions after detecting the signals of the migration in the ancient
DNA. To quote: “Outlier analysis shows no evidence of Steppe pastoralist ancestry in groups
surrounding BMAC sites prior to 2100 BCE, but suggests that between 2100-1700 BCE, the BMAC
communities were surrounded by peoples carrying such ancestry.”

Among the ancient DNA from BMAC sites – as well as among the DNA from the eastern Iranian site
of Shahr-i-Sokhta - there were some surprising finds with major consequences: three outlier
individuals dated to between 3100 to 2200 BC, with an ancestry profile similar to ancient DNA
samples from the Swat Prehistoric Grave Culture of Pakistan almost a thousand years later (1,200 to
800 BCE). The BMAC, Shahr-i-Sokhta and the Swat Valley samples were all distinctive in having 14 to
42 per cent ancestry from South Asian hunter-gatherers. The Indus Valley civilization was known to
have had contacts with both BMAC and Shahr-i-Sokhta, so the authors of the study suggest that
these outlier individuals were recent immigrants from the Indus Valley Civilization who later
migrated to BMAC.

But the story is not over yet. The scientists compared the Swat Valley samples from 1200 BCE to 1
CE with the outliers from BMAC and Shahr-i-Sokhta and what they found was revealing. While the
Swat Valley samples were genetically very similar to the ancient outlier individuals, they also differed
significantly in harbouring Steppe ancestry of about 22 per cent. “This provides direct evidence for
Steppe ancestry being integrated into South Asian groups in the 2nd millennium BCE, and is also
consistent with the evidence of southward expansions of the Steppe groups through Turan at this
time,” says the study.

Earlier genetic studies had already shown that Indian populations are a mixture of two statistically
reconstructed ancient populations, ANI and ASI. But these studies were unable to provide a finer
resolution of what went into making these two populations. The newly available ancient DNA has
now made it possible to deconstruct the ANI and ASI into their component parts. ANI can now be
seen as a mixture of Iranian agriculturists, South Asian hunter-gatherers (termed for the first time in
this study as Ancient Ancestral South Indians or AASI) and pastoralists from the Steppe. ASI can be
seen as a mixture of Iranian agriculturists and south Asian hunter-gatherers.


There are also other tell-tale marks of the Steppe migration. For example, the Y chromosome
haplogroup R1a (of subtype Z93) which is common in South Asia today, was of high frequency in
middle to late Bronze Age Steppe.

The study goes on to note: “It is striking that the great majority of Indo-European speakers today
living both in Europe and South Asia harbour large fractions of ancestry related to Yamnaya Steppe
pastoralists, suggesting that the “late proto-Indo-European”, the language ancestral to all modern
Indo-European languages, was the language of the Yamnaya. While ancient DNA studies have
documented westward movements of peoples from the Steppe that plausibly spread this ancestry,
there has not been ancient DNA evidence of the chain of transmission to South Asia. Our
documentation of a large-scale genetic pressure from Steppe groups in the second millennium BCE
provides a prime candidate, a finding that is consistent with archaeological evidence of connections
between material culture in the Kazakh middle-to-late Bronze Age Steppe and early Vedic culture in

But there’s more. When the geneticists tested whether the ANI-ASI mixture model fits 140 present-
day population groups south Asia, 10 groups stood out – each of them had poor fits, and significantly
elevated levels of Steppe ancestry. The strongest signals of elevated Steppe ancestry were in two
groups that were of traditionally priestly status who were expected to be custodians of texts written
in Sankrit. Says the study: ”A possible explanation is that the influx of Steppe ancestry into South
Asia in the mid-2nd millennium BCE created a meta-population of groups with different proportions
of Steppe ancestry, with one having relatively more Steppe ancestry having a central role in
spreading early Vedic culture. Due to the strong endogamy rules in South Asia, which have kept
some groups isolated from their neighbours for thousands of years, some of this substructure within
Indian population still persists...”


That leads us to question two: Who built and populated the Indus Valley Civilization? The fact that
migrants from the Steppe arrived only in the second millennium rule out Vedic Aryans as a possibility
because by then, the civilization had already started declining. That leaves only two possibilities.
Iranian agriculturists and indigenous south Asian hunter-gatherers, or AASI. This study had no access
to any ancient DNA from the Indus Valley directly, so the answers it gives are based on indirect
evidence. (It is good to bear in mind, though, that the scientists who are analysing ancient DNA from
the Indus Valley Civilisation site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana are also co-authors of this study, and that
report is expected to be published soon).

For example, the scientists found three outlier individuals from 3100 to 2200 BCE – one in the BMAC
site of Gonur and two in the eastern Iran site of Shahr-i-Sokhta – who are very similar genetically to
the ancient DNA samples from the Swat Valley around 1200 to 800 BCE. These three ancient
individuals had 14 to 42 per cent of their ancestry related to South Asian hunter-gatherers and the
rest mainly to early Iranian agriculturists. The fact that Indus Valley Civilisation is known to have had
contacts with both BMAC and Shahr-i-Sokhta, and that these individuals carried the ancestry of
South Asian hunter-gatherers unlike those around them, and that they were genetically similar to
the Swat Valley population make it likely that they were migrants from the Indus Valley to BMAC and
eastern Iran. If this is so, it suggests that the Indus Valley Civilization was peopled by an admixed
population of Iranian agriculturists and South Asian hunter-gatherers. Of course, we will not be sure
until we have direct DNA evidence from the Indus Valley Civilization, but this is as close an
approximation as one can get.

That takes us to Question One: were the beginnings of agriculture in South Asia helped along by the
migration of agriculturists from Iran or did west Asian crops such as barley and wheat spread to
south Asia without west Asian agriculturists coming along? The only answer that genetics can give as
of now is that the Iranian agriculturists must have been in the Indus Valley at least by 4700 to 3000
BC. This date was arrived at by using the three outlier individuals from BMAC and Shahri-i-Sokhta –
what the study calls the Indus periphery samples – to calculate the date of admixture between the
Iranian agriculturist group and the South Asian hunter-gatherer group. But there is evidence of the
beginnings of agriculture in the north-western parts of the subcontinent much earlier. This could
either mean that agriculture BEGAN locally without migrating agriculturists from Iran; or it could
mean that Iranian agriculturists were in the region much earlier but the mixing between the two
groups happened later. This is a question, therefore, that will be definitively answered only when
the study based on ancient DNA from the Indus Valley site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana is released – it
was scheduled to be published more than a month ago, but has been delayed.


In the words of the study, which seems to use “Indus periphery people” as a stand-in for the Indus
Valley Civilization people in the absence of direct DNA evidence from there: “the Indus periphery-
related people are the single most important source of ancestry in India.” That is because by mixing
with the incoming Steppe pastoralists, they formed the ANI, and by mixing with the south Asian
hunter-gatherers or AASI, in the South, they formed the ASI too. The study doesn’t say it, but it
might be useful to look at the Indus Valley people as the common genetic and cultural platform that
unites most regions of India. Genetic data shows that both ANI and ASI was fully formed in the
second millennium (2000 to 1000 BCE), in what must have been among the most tumultuous
periods in the history of the region. A civilization was declining, there was new influx of people from
elsewhere, and everyone was on the move, causing populations that had stayed separate for long to

It is worth quoting the study fully on this: “A parsimonious hypothesis is that as the Steppe groups
moved south and mixed with the Indus Periphery-related groups at the end of the Indus Valley
Civilization to form the ANI, other Indus Periphery-related groups moved further south and east to
mix with AASI groups in peninsular India to form the ASI. This is consistent with suggestions that the
spread of the Indus Valley Civilization was responsible for dispersing Dravidian languages, although
scenarios in which Dravidian languages derive from pre-Indus languages of peninsular India are also
entirely plausible as ASI ancestry is mostly derived from the AASI.”

So there we are; all questions answered, more or less. The Indus Valley civilization was likely built
and populated by a mixed population of Iranian agriculturists and south Asian hunter-gatherers;
pastoralists of the south-eastern Steppe moved into South Asia in the second millennium, bringing
with them Indo-European language and culture; the mixing between the Steppe people and people
of the Indus Valley Civilization caused the emergence of the Ancestral North Indian population; and
the mixing between the Indus Valley people and the South Asian hunter-gatherers formed the
Ancestral South Indian population. Genetics is steadily making sure that we are no longer stuck in a
rut asking the same questions and making the same arguments over and over again, with tempers
rising and nostrils flaring. It is time to move on.


To end on the same note as on an earlier article written by this author nine months ago titled ‘How
Genetics is Settling the Aryan Migration Debate’:

What is abundantly clear is that we are a multi-source civilization, not a single-source one, drawing
its cultural impulses, its tradition and practices from a variety of lineages and migration histories.
The Out of Africa immigrants, the pioneering, fearless explorers who discovered this land originally
and settled in it and whose lineages still form the bedrock of our population; those who arrived later
with a package of farming techniques and built the Indus Valley civilization whose cultural ideas and
practices perhaps enrich much of our traditions today; those who arrived from East Asia, probably
bringing with them the practice of rice cultivation and all that goes with it; those who came later
with a language closely related to Sanskrit and its associated beliefs and practices and reshaped our
society in fundamental ways; and those who came even later for trade or for conquest and chose to
stay, all have mingled and contributed to this civilization we call Indian. We are all migrants.

Tony Joseph is a writer and is on Twitter: @tjoseph0010